Serenity Prayer (1937)
- Reinhold Niebuhr
“Father, give us courage to change what must be altered,
serenity to accept what cannot be helped,
and the insight to know the one from the other.”
- as used in AA today
“God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.”
Despite a small controversy over authorship there is evidence that somewhere around 1937 Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the prayer in its original form. Today it stands in its revised form as a centerpiece of Alcoholics Anonymous ideology. Niebuhr was a protestant theologian and philosopher, he was not specifically addressing alcoholism as he created the prayer. The original prayer is about integrity, the current version is not.
The difference between the early and current versions of the aphorism illustrate a shift in the attitude of American cultural thought. The original asks that all of “us” share the requested boon, whereas the contemporary version reads like a command: “God grant me”… (a personal favor). The attitude shifts from universal to singular and loses its altruistic beginnings. It makes the person giving the prayer the center of its purpose rather than society at large. Now, in AA this probably makes sense, given the problem is the unique disease, alcoholism, which is a personal issue. Something is lost, however, when the whole of society is left out of the picture; it is isolating. Much of Al-Anon’s writing talks about the effects on the family and friends of an alcoholic, the greater society is affected by the problem, yet the prayer is a solitary request.
The choice to specify ‘God’ over ‘Father’ makes sense due to the cultural shift in the 1950s where “In God We Trust” appeared on our money and “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. This was allowable under the First Amendment through the legal rationalization known as “Ceremonial Deism” which renders the word ‘God’ to the status of a token; it removes the significance of Gods as people conceive of them and replaces that with a generic place keeper. The God on our money is whatever you want it to be – Zeus, Prometheus, Satan or any other deity you may choose because ceremonial deism is the legal treatment justifying use of the word. AA and Al-Anon apply this ceremonial version of God in their use of the word. ‘Higher Power’ is the interchangeable alternate.
I believe the word, ‘Father’ does a better job of communicating the breadth and depth and intimacy of a power-holding authority than ceremonial deism does, but may carry negative connotations for some. Remember, I haven’t said a prayer since the late 1970s. We all have fathers, we don’t all have gods, and certainly not the same god. A generic symbol representing the elusive and undefined ‘higher’ power is somewhat nebulous and dilutes that power’s, power. It also has the effect of alienating the expanding population of non-religious people averse to the word: god.
The original prayer begins with courage, then serenity, then insight. The current version begins with serenity, then courage, then wisdom. Serenity is probably necessary as a prerequisite state of mind when dealing the horrors of alcohol addiction. One must be serene while seeking insight or taking action. The order of the words is less relevant than the choice to replace insight with wisdom. I much prefer insight because most people think of wisdom, inaccurately, as something you absorb passively over time by merely existing in the world. Insight carries with it the active behavior of taking action, you look inside – insight. People gain wisdom through actively looking inside the situations of their lives rather than hoping to somehow become wise someday. “Insight” is an activity, while having wisdom granted to you through prayer is magical thinking. (The words, ’Magical Thinking’ are often intended to be derogatory, but they can be just as powerful as any thoughts in certain situations.)
To be honest, the current version of the prayer seems like a command to be magically granted a list of three things with minimal effort from the pray-er. While the original begins with an action on the part of the person praying: “give us courage to change what must be altered.” Well, who decided what must be altered? The person making the prayer considers it so obvious that it need not be stated. It is a request for assistance in an active pursuit, as opposed to seeking a gift for an immobile supplicant who requires help to even begin to address the challenge facing them.
Wow, I didn’t think it would be this harsh, but the more I delve into it, the more severe the current prayer seems to be. I see the main issue as a matter of integrity on the part of the person doing the praying. A person with integrity actively seeks first to understand, then deliberate the options, then makes and defends what appears to be the best choice of action. The process should be conducted with honesty and take whatever time and effort required to make an appropriate choice; that kind of deliberation is the foundation of integrity. I would respect the person making the first version of the prayer, but I may have pity for the person using the second version. Empowering a person engaged in active pursuit of a goal which shows their strength of character is a prayer I would expect a God to answer affirmatively.
The AA version of the prayer is more of a request to get started, it is an act of desperation. It comes from the futility of the situation. That desperation, is so overwhelming for alcoholics, their family and friends that the capacity for integrity no longer exists. The pit of that particular hell is so low that a cry for help is all that can be summoned. The plea for help is all the afflicted can muster and help must be given because the individual realizes they do not have power over it any longer. When one is powerless in the face of the disease, any power (even magical thinking) can be used as a crutch to stand again. Belief in that power will carry you through.
The purpose of AA twelve step plan is to provide a structure for whatever straw the person has grasped to help make it work for them. It is a template whereby will and faith are used to create a ladder out of the pit of hell. Over time the ladder becomes a platform over the pit, but the pit never goes away, alcohol is still the disease.
So, is it still necessary, once the platform has been established for the individual’s despair to be the central feature of their prayers? The integrity of the individual has grown with each new rung in the ladder and each new floor of the platform. Shouldn’t the growth and progress and success of the individual lead them to autonomous integrity? If that is the case then, at some point, the prayer should revert to its original form. The prayer still requires the same sentiments, but it should be given in the form appropriate for the pray-er’s improved condition. They are no longer in the pit; they have floored it over and regained credibility. They should speak the version of the prayer that reflects their re-born integrity.
It is my contention that the current “act-of-desperation” prayer keeps people desperate, even though the magical thinking of that version has already been transformed into active behavior – just look at the platform covering the pit as evidence! The prayer is isolating and depressing and it incites pity, it is not reflective of growth of the individual, and it has the effect of subjugating the individual to their past instead of acknowledging that they have moved on. Perhaps a version of the aphorism with its sentiments of courage, serenity, and insight is still essential, but the attitude of the speaker should reflect the progress they are actively making. Replace the communal approach of the original version over the ‘helpless individual’ version so it can personify the message of the Twelfth Step: to instruct others (all of “us” share) with the knowledge and the re-formed attitude gained by the experience. It would be reflective of the journey and the restoration of integrity.